As befits a fugitive with an alias, "Amir" is both a hero and a hunted man. In hiding since May from a Pakistani terrorist group doggedly tracing him, he wrote in an e-mail on June 18, "I know that they will kill me soon." But no fear, he wrote in broken English: "I am ready for die."
Amir, a Christian in majority-Muslim Pakistan, knew he would have to flee with his family when he mounted an undercover rescue of Christian children kidnapped by Muslim traffickers. In doing so, he gathered film footage that could severely damage a popular Islamic charity-and terrorist front-in Pakistan, called Jamaat ud Dawa, or JUD.
While his life was always at risk, things turned worse weeks after the rescue. Amir hoped to win safe passage to the United States or another country to escape JUD. But while U.S. embassy and State Department officials have seemed eager to collect his evidence against JUD, they offered no visa or asylum as of June 22, more than a month since Amir pleaded for sanctuary.
"The more he reveals to State and they start working with the Pakistani government, the more JUD will be motivated to find him and kill him," said David, the American missionary who helped Amir redeem the children. (WORLD interviewed David twice and examined the photos Amir and others had taken; revealing David's full name would endanger his life.) With corruption rampant in the Pakistani government, he told WORLD, "it's one bribe away from [Amir's] whereabouts being discovered by the wrong person."
The story began in February, when David visited Pakistan to work with Amir. After reading about children sold into slavery, he says he asked Amir if they could save a few by buying them from slavers. He was thinking aloud, but Amir would soon be several steps ahead of him.
Within about two weeks, Amir wrote to David in the United States and said he had been able to infiltrate a slave network near Quetta in Balochistan, one of the fractious provinces that border Afghanistan. Posing as a businessman who wanted children for a begging ring, Amir gave a $500 down payment on three boys among 20 he chose from a photo album, promising the rest of the money later.
"I was totally blown away by that," David said. Now he had to raise the rest of the $5,000 Amir had pledged within two months, when he was due to return to Pakistan. The sum was an apparent bulk discount, because one child's kidneys could sell for $3,000. The traffickers told him they had other marketable uses for boys and girls, whom they like to be between ages 5 and 10: for sex, as camel jockeys in the Middle East, and as drug carriers for smugglers. The slavers also said they target Christians, considered infidels, and never abduct Muslim children.
David struggled with the wisdom of buying the children. He thought, All we're really doing is buying three kids so they can restock their inventory and get three more. So he and Amir devised a plan that would also snap the slave ring: Amir would wear a concealed camera that would record one of his next transactions with the traffickers. Then, he hoped, he could find honest officers within the Pakistani police force to help arrest them.
When Amir met the slavers again to pick up the three boys, he persuaded them to hand over pictures of the other 17 boys by paying them another $2,500 and promising to buy them all. That meant another $28,500 for David to raise through his small ministry within two months.
In the six weeks leading up to the May rescue, police worked closely with Amir: Two of them even traveled to Quetta with him as supposed bodyguards when he met with the slavers. The slavers agreed to bring the 17 boys to Punjab Province, where David and Amir would be. The two men agreed to fix the button camera to one of Amir's harmless-looking bodyguards so he could get wide-enough shots of the transaction and not just close-ups. Six police officers were to pose as field workers nearby so they could quickly call for backup and capture the slavers.
The rendezvous was set for 2 p.m. May 10. But instead of bringing the boys to Amir, a man stepped into Amir's car and directed him along obscure one-lane roads surrounded by fields. The police could not follow without being discovered, so Amir was on his own. Another man then got in and guided Amir deeper into the countryside. Finally, they came upon head slaver Gul Khan sitting on a bench in a field with some 15 heavily armed men, having his shoulders massaged.
Mr. Khan told him they needed to check whether Amir's money was counterfeit first, and took his bodyguard hostage in case it was. Amir managed to rip the camera off the bodyguard first; he ordered him to open his car's trunk, which gave him enough cover to make the exchange.
As the night deepened, Amir did something else daring: He followed Mr. Khan's car and filmed him driving to JUD's headquarters near Muridke, Punjab. The next night, Mr. Khan fixed a drop-off point for the boys and the bodyguard. Amir arranged for friends to pick them up and take them to a Christian friend's home.
David and Amir the next morning woke the boys-filthy after months of captivity in a windowless room-and told them they were safe and going home. "None of them smiled," David said. "I don't think any of them believed us."
The men split up the group to protect the boys from a fresh kidnapping, and within days Amir and David, with a London Times reporter tagging along, returned six to their families. They came from all over Pakistan, aged about 7 to 13, convincing David and Amir further that this was a JUD operation. Only a network could have scouted out villages and identified Christian children. "Again, all of them were Christian kids," David said. "The chances of them randomly selecting 20 Christian boys are quite rare." In the end, Amir also purchased 15 kidnapped girls in May.
David says that as the boys neared their homes, their eyes lit up as they recognized landmarks. The first boy they returned had a 2-month-old baby brother he did not know about. Some of the parents were too shocked to be happy, stunned to see sons they thought were gone forever and bewildered by the Westerners helping to return them. All who were asked said they did not bother to tell the police the boys were missing, because they did not have enough money to bribe officers.
But the last reunion, David said, was the most touching. A neighbor told the father of the last boy, Asif, that his son was coming and to sit at home until the car found his house. But he wouldn't wait, and came running down a path to find him, scooping up Asif in his arms.
With his work done, it was not long before JUD discovered Amir's treachery. By then he had fled, but JUD has been busy in the intervening weeks, locating Amir's home and office and then visiting them, asking when he will return.
The State Department has designated JUD as a terrorist group, one of the faces of a large organization called Lashkar-i-Taiba (LT) that fights against India in the disputed region of Kashmir. In 2002, Pakistan banned LT. Some of their top members have reported links to al-Qaeda. Pakistanis, however, view JUD as a friendly charity. The group grew immensely popular after last year's massive earthquake by distributing food and medicine to survivors.
The U.S. embassy in Islamabad is still working on Amir's case, the State Department says. David has heard that they are asking Amir for details he has been afraid to give until he is safe, such as precise addresses for the children. Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers such as Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) have pressed for quick action to give Amir sanctuary. Now Amir hopes just to win safety for his family.
Stopping JUD is the "way we can save so many families," he wrote David in the same June 18 e-mail. "And [I] believe that [the] Lord will give me the reward of my efforts."